The hunt for the new Paddington is rife in Hollywood. Ever since the Paul King helmed franchise hit the big time, studio chiefs have had marmalade-sticky fingers all over the classics of kids lit. While 2021 saw Clifford the Big Red Dog bound off Norman Bridwell’s original pages, this year brings Lyle Lyle Crocodile, an adaptation of Bernard Waber’s 1962 favourite: ‘The House on East 88th Street’, and its eponymous sequel. With music from Greatest Showman maestros Pasek and Paul, Lyle has show-stopping high notes to combat a general lack of bite.
Things start well. A bouncy Javier Bardem recalls Hugh Jackman’s Barnum as Hector P. Valenti, failing magician and wannabe legend. Pigeons, he’s repeatedly told, simply won’t cut it. What Valenti needs is a headline act. Something unique. Something the world has never seen before. For a man who never seems to catch a break, he sure strikes lucky when the first exotic animals shop he tries just happens to have a baby crocodile jamming along to Pete Rodriguez in the back. Lyle can’t talk but boy can he sing. He like it like that. Canadian pop sensation Shawn Mendes provides the pipes.
Rapidly montaging from baby croc to fully grown reptile, Lyle lacks the adorable visual presence of Paddington and Clifford. He has the puppy dog eyes but neither fluff nor fur. It’s an unfair advantage. What’s more, his inability to speak, though novel on paper, grates. And yet, all told, there’s something endearing here. Lyle is cute and there is an admirably weighty quality to the animation that brings Lyle into an otherwise cheerfully real world and a winning clumsiness.
If it is hard, at times, to unify Lyle’s candy floss voice which his scaly physical presence, the elating boost his film gains from each time he does sing is vital to the film’s watchability. Each time, you’re waiting for the fist pumping injection of energy to boost proceedings. The pervading sense may be that Pasek and Paul didn’t devote quite so much time and effort to ‘Top of the World’ and ‘Rip Up the Recipe’ as ‘A Million Dreams’ and ‘This is Me’ but they’re ear worms nonetheless. Certainly, a handful of viewings on Luke’s inevitable streaming destination will have them pulverisating round the old drums.
Though a born showman, Lyle finds himself crippled by stage fright whenever faced with an audience. A failure to live up to the broke Valenti’s ambitions sees him partially abandoned and told to hide in his attic until further notice. Enter the Primm family. There’s wide eyed, skittish and lonely Josh, played by Timmy Failure’s Winslow Fegley, plus dad and step-mum. They’re known only as Mr. and Mrs. Primm but come in the form of Scoot McNairy and Constance Wu. Lyle is Wu’s first major work since her fall from Twitter grace over ill judged comments surrounding the recommission of Nahnatchka Khan sitcom Fresh of the Boat. It’s a welcome return. Mrs. Primm’s kitchen quickstep with Lyle is perhaps the film’s most entertaining sequence.
All that follows the meeting of Josh and Lyle is entirely par for the course. There’s precious little surprising in their tale, which whittles through rote expectations and predictably timely positive affirmations. For youngsters, it’s enough. For grownups, it’s an undemanding way to spend a Saturday afternoon. To that end, Lyle reminds less of Paddington than Stuart Little. There’s worse company to be in.